EPHEMERAL/GOSSAMER: *NO ARCHIVE* (already done).
If you're not familiar with the XFVCU Virtual Series, get the details at http://xfvcu.deslea.com. Plus, watch for next week's episode, 1x07 Prism, a collaborative effort by Deslea, CindyET, Emily M, Eodrakken, Lara Means, Maidenjedi and Vanzetti, in which a killer with a penchant for mindgames poses a challenge to the entire team - and a crisis for one of their number.
X Files: VCU 1x06
By Eodrakken Quicksilver
DISCLAIMER: Characters not mine.
ARCHIVE: Yes, just keep my name and headers. RATING: PG13.
SPOILERS/TIMEFRAME: Set 18 months after The Truth. CATEGORY/KEYWORDS: Post-series, casefile, XFVCU. SUMMARY: Krycek and Fowley are called in to investigate two murders at Skyland Mountain, dredging up old memories and resentments. VIRTUAL SERIES SITE: http://xfvcu.deslea.com AUTHOR SITE: http://www.morosophy.com/sun FEEDBACK: firstname.lastname@example.org
The mountain sat curled up on the horizon, smugly watching over the countryside. The sun had gone down and the sky was smudged black and blue, like smeared charcoal, and the nighttime animals were coming out of burrows, out of the earth, out of the mountain. There were Canada geese, in rough formation. White-tailed deer with hard tense legs and melancholy eyes. Owls too, silent but present - and the field mice went to ground.
It had been years since bodies burned on this mountain, but the animals could still smell the smoke. It smelled like fear, but it pulled them too, and made them never want to leave.
At the mountain's foot, the boy stared up at what he could see of the stars. Cassiopeia - looked like she was dead sky-center, right above his auburn head, and she called to him - beckoned him. The queen and her subject. He could not refuse her.
He could not get to her.
He threw his head back and wailed. It echoed through the canyon like a lupine howl of unholy anguish, and the deer scattered. But they would be back.
The boy dug into the dirt, getting it all over his hands and arms, jammed under his fingernails, soaking into his knees. He could feel an itch in the center of the mountain that he had to get to in order to scratch it. Beyond desperation and into pure need: he had to get in.
A high, tentative voice, with an undertone of gravel. Confused, maybe frightened, but trying to suppress it. The boy froze. Such an effort - such a push to stop himself from scratching at the dirt. He sweated, pressing his body hard against the dugup earth. There was a part of him that understood that if he was caught here, he would be taken away, and this would all be for nothing. Again.
"Is someone out here?" she asked the stars plaintively. She stumbled slightly on a root and cursed under her breath. "Is anyone-?" Such desperate confusion in her voice.
The moon broke through the clouds, and he saw her. The frizzed outline of her hair, the whitehighlighted curve of her shoulder.
"Hello?" she said again. "I don't-" Her voice trembled, and she broke off. "Why am I here?" she demanded savagely, suddenly sounding frustrated and disgusted with herself.
She turned her back.
The boy seized his chance. She screamed.
She wouldn't be confused anymore.
Diana Fowley cut across the grass in front of the building, not because she was late for work, but simply because she couldn't wait to get there. There was an undeniable spring in her step - she no longer had to watch her back. The morning was bright (green, yellow, pale blue), and she liked that, and wished it didn't have to fade away into winter so soon.
As she approached the door, she was not looking where she was going, and her toe caught and sank into the ground - she stumbled slightly, but steadied herself. It was a fresh gopher hole in the lawn. She pulled her foot out of the little mound of soft dirt, her brow creasing in annoyance. Standing on one foot, she tried to brush the dirt off, with moderate success.
"Damn it," she muttered softly.
She looked up quickly - it was Alex. He must have just walked out the front door. He was not wearing a jacket, and was holding an empty paper cup from the coffee shop across the street, half-crushed in his hand.
"Yeah, I'm fine," she said, her voice a little muffled with embarrassment. She put her foot down and brushed her hands off against each other. "I just...stepped in something."
Alex smirked unpleasantly. "I know the feeling."
His tone was unusually dark, and she picked up on it instantly, half-alarmed. "Why, what happened?"
He waved her off vaguely, squinting up at the sky. "Caught a double murder. Kersh wants me and Mulder."
"You and Fox?" she echoed. "Why?"
"Because of the location. It's Skyland Mountain."
"Ah..." She chewed her cheek for a moment, considering. "I'll talk to Kersh," she said finally.
He threw her a sharp glance. She'd expected that - he wouldn't want someone else to jump to his defense, as if he couldn't handle it himself. But they both knew Kersh would be unlikely to listen to what Alex had to say in this instance. And Diana privately thought that Alex's style of argument wouldn't help the odds. Maybe Alex was thinking the same thing, because his gaze softened, and he nodded.
"Sure," he said.
Diana strode up the corridor to Kersh's office, and met Jeffrey coming out the other way, juggling several folders.
"Hey, stranger," she said.
He glanced up, and smiled - and oh, it was still good to see him smile, even if it was only a little bit. "Hey," he said. "Morning."
"What kind of mood is he in?" she asked.
Jeffrey shrugged. "His usual. I went in to ask a simple question, I came out with twice as much paperwork as I went in with."
Diana grinned. "That's life in the surface world," she said lightly, gesturing at the slick, brightly lit offices around them.
Jeffrey chuckled. "Why do you ask? Going in to ask for a raise?"
"No, just going to...bring a couple of things to his attention."
"Why, is there a problem?" Jeffrey asked, his face turning to slight concern.
"I hope not," she said with a wry smile, holding up crossed fingers.
Jeffrey still looked curious, but he nodded. "What do you want to do for dinner tonight?"
She shrugged and shook her head. "I'm not sure I'll be in town. I'll let you know, though." She put her hand on his lower back with a smile as she passed.
She paused in the doorway to Kersh's assistant's office. The woman was on the phone, and waved Diana in.
Kersh was at his desk looking through some papers, and glanced up first with annoyance - then with a rare, flat smile when he saw who it was.
"Agent Fowley. Good morning. Have a seat." He indicated the chair across the desk.
"Good morning, sir," she said, returning the smile politely and sitting down.
"What can I do for you?"
"Sir...I understand you've assigned Agents Mulder and Krycek to look into the murders at Skyland Mountain."
"The local authorities requested them by name. Evidently someone remembers them from the last investigation. Given that past experience, it seemed reasonable to grant the request."
Diana nodded, but her brow creased, and she let out a small hum.
"Do you think that's going to be a problem?" Kersh prompted.
"I do, actually," she said. "I'd be concerned that the...difficulties between them would steal too much focus from the task at hand."
"They're going to have to learn to work as a team at some point, Agent Fowley," Kersh said, turning up his palms.
"I know that, sir. And I know them - I know they won't disappoint you. I trust them to work it out. But I also know that it's going to take time." She paused. "I'm afraid it's too soon, sir," she added bluntly.
Kersh studied her carefully for a moment. She held his gaze without difficulty. He sighed slightly, and rubbed his left eye under his glasses. "All right. I trust your judgment in this. You'll go to Skyland with Agent Krycek. But be sure to keep in touch with Agent Mulder - I want you to have his input."
Diana nodded and stood up with a brief, small smile. "Yes, of course. Thank you, sir."
Alex was in the passenger's seat while Diana drove them down the bright Virginia highway, yellow and green fields with occasional barns and lone, stunted round trees. Cows were grazing free-range, and it reminded Alex that there are horse farms out here. Or at least there used to be.
He glanced over at Diana, wondering if she was thinking this too, if she'd met the Brit out here as many times as he did. But she was just gazing out at the road ahead of her, and tapping her fingers against the steering wheel in time to the muffled, staticky radio - *Very superstitious, writings on the wall...*
They wound their way up the switchbacks. Musty, sun-stroked old forest on either side. When they were on a switchback facing one way, they could see the distant wires and cold black towers of the ski lift. When they were on a switchback facing the other way, they could see only trees. They turned onto a gravelly service road, the entrance marked with NO TRESPASSING signs. The radio really started to give out, and Diana switched it off.
They drove what seemed like hours without seeing any forks, and just as Diana was about to wonder aloud if they'd gone up the right way, a short detective in a black jacket appeared around a bend and flagged them down. Diana pulled into a ditch by the side of the road, and they got out of the car.
"Agent Krycek," the detective said with a quick, sharply curious smile, shaking his hand. "Good to see you again." Alex remembered this detective by her dimpled, rather doughy face and long, thick hair, but he could not recall her name.
"I'm Agent Fowley." Diana offered her hand.
"Detective Warsaw. Nice to meet you. Will Agent Mulder be joining us?" she added to Alex, with an undisguisable hopeful look.
Diana glanced at him askance. "No," she said simply. "Where's our crime scene? I only see trees."
"It's a little ways up," Warsaw said, gesturing behind her. "I heard your car coming. Didn't want you to miss it."
So they hiked further off the road, until they came to where the uniforms and photographers were doing their business.
The body was half buried in the gentle incline of the mountainside, black dirt and mud scattered and thrown around all over the leaf litter. Her left leg and her right foot were in the open air, as were her left hand. The hand was stark white, with tightly-curled fingers. Flannel shirt, jeans, sneakers, dingy white tube socks. Everything scattered with dirt.
"Do we have a name?" Diana asked, walking around to get a look at the burial from all sides.
"Rebecca Austor," Detective Warsaw said. "Did you bag that wallet yet?" she asked a crime scene tech.
"Give it here." She retrieved the wallet and showed Diana the driver's license. "Forty-two years of age. Resides right here in Skyland."
"We were told this was a double murder," Alex said. He turned up his palms. "I only see one body here."
Warsaw glanced aside briefly, clearing her throat. "Well, yeah, it's technically - the first body was found three days ago."
"But the murders took place on the same day?" Diana prompted, puzzled.
"Uh...no, it looks like not."
"Then why did you-" Alex started in an irked, accusatory tone, but he cut himself off. "They're just similar crimes, then," he started again, in a lower voice. "Not the same crime."
"Right. Maybe your secretary or whoever didn't understand the message. But, you know, it's good you came. I really wanted you to come." She suddenly looked embarrassed, as if she'd said too much.
"Me?" Alex echoed, sounding non-plussed. He was squatting down to look closer at the excavation job. "That's flattering," he deadpanned. "I'm not in such high demand these days."
"Where was the first victim found?" Diana asked.
Warsaw gestured behind them. "Maybe...three hundred yards off."
"Can we go have a look?"
Warsaw nodded. "Sure thing. You got all the pictures you need?" she asked a photographer.
"Yeah. The coroner's here, he's ready to take her. They had a hard time getting the van up the trail."
Warsaw nodded. "Go ahead. Be careful. And put some of that dirt in a bucket, will you?" She beckoned to Diana and Alex and started hiking further up the hill.
"I have to tell you, there's not a lot of physical evidence," she told them as they walked. "Only footprint we got was a size thirteen Nike. On fingerprints and fibers, we don't have anything at all. Look at this. I wanted to show you this too. We've got more of these dug-up holes, all over the area...There's a bunch of them. Over here, and here-" Warsaw pointed. "Some look older than others."
They slowed down as they passed a hole that was partly covered over with forest debris, but did look very much like the hole in which Rebecca Austor was buried.
"Is there any possibility that it's animal activity?" Diana asked.
Warsaw shook her head.
"Probably not," Alex said. "An animal doesn't just dig for no reason, and that's what this looks like. It's...ineffectual. Shallow. They're not getting anywhere."
"Yeah, they are shallow," Warsaw nodded, turning around to walk backwards as she talked to them. "They're not big enough to have held a body. Even so, we dug a couple of 'em up. I sent the dirt out for analysis; they'll tell us if there's blood. But I don't think so."
"You must know this area well," Diana observed.
"What makes you say that?" Warsaw asked with a puzzled expression, stepping backwards over a tree root.
"You can walk it without looking where you're going."
Warsaw looked slightly flustered, and turned around. "Oh...well, we've had to walk back and forth a lot this morning."
And she was quiet for the rest of the walk.
"This is it."
She'd stopped in front of another hole dug into the incline, this one deeper than the other ones they'd passed on the way up. "The victim was a male, twenty-five years of age. Jason Hankins. Also a Skyland resident, a native. He's waiting in the coroner's office for you, but we found him just like the other one. Half buried, head first in the dirt."
"What was the cause of death?" Diana asked.
"Had his head beat against a rock. That rock." She pointed to a large black stone a few yards off. "We found blood traces. He was also strangled, but I think it was the head trauma that did it. The coroner would be able to tell you more."
By the time they returned, the excavation was done, and Rebecca Austor's grave was a crumbling black mouth in the side of the mountain. They could hear the coroner's van rumbling off down the service road, crunching the gravel. Crime scene clean up and the photographers were packing up their gear.
"How did you find the bodies so quickly?" Diana asked.
Warsaw hesitated, looking strangely startled. "What do you mean," she said flatly.
"This is supposed to be off-limits to everyone but the park service, this area," Diana clarified. "Who found the bodies?"
Warsaw hesitated. "I - I did."
"You found the bodies?" Alex prompted, eyebrows raised in surprise. "Both of them?"
She nodded. "I saw them when I was coming up on rounds."
"You're city PD," Alex said. "You guys do patrols all the way up here?"
"Sometimes," Warsaw said, stepping back from them and crossing her arms across her chest. "We get a lot of tourists, a lot of dumb kids. The park service, they're under staffed, you know, we've got to help each other out..."
Diana frowned. "But the sites aren't visible from the service road," she said.
"Yes they are," Warsaw shot back aggressively, before Diana had quite finished her sentence. "How else would I have seen them?"
The scene was suddenly quiet, as everyone turned around to look. Warsaw bit her lip. "Sorry, I didn't mean to snap at you," she said in a lower voice. "It's been a long week."
Diana paused. "It's all right," she said carefully. "We'll catch up with you later today to give an update on our progress. I think we want to go down to the coroner's office now." She looked at Alex for confirmation.
He nodded. "Let's go."
"The bodies wouldn't have been visible from the road," Diana said in a whisper, when they got to the car. "We had to be flagged down and walked over to them-"
He turned. It was Warsaw.
"Can I ask you something?"
He glanced at Diana. She shrugged, getting back into the car.
"It was real, wasn't it," the detective said, her hands dangling uneasily at her sides.
"I mean, it...it was real. Duane Barry, what he said, what happened to him was real."
Alex tensed, looking affronted for a moment. But there was no insult in the detective's round face - just worry and searching curiosity. It still took a moment for him to answer. It seemed strange, even now, to be able to answer, to have no reason to hide the truth. "Yeah," he said.
Warsaw hesitated. "You just have to wonder...how many people are locked up somewhere, and they're not crazy, they're just..." She trailed off, waving her hands in a gesture of helplessness.
"It doesn't accomplish anything to worry about it," Alex said curtly.
Warsaw looked slightly disappointed, as if she'd been looking forward to talking about it, but nodded. "Yeah, I...I guess not."
"She's definitely hiding something," Alex said as they drove back down the service road. "She lied about how the bodies were found. And she misrepresented the nature of the crimes to make sure we'd take an interest and come out here."
"Not we," Diana corrected. "You. And Agent Mulder, presumably. Do you remember her?"
"A little, but we didn't work with her very closely."
Diana hummed. She wasn't sure if she could see that dimpled face contorted in homicidal rage, or sadistic lust. Though it was never smart to rule a suspect out on appearances alone. "Do you think it's possible she killed those people?" she asked.
"Anything's possible," Alex said, peering intently into the rear view mirror as if he could see the detective there. "But if she did, she's doing a shit job of covering it up. She called up down here, she admitted she discovered the bodies... I mean, there is such a thing as an incompetent murderer, but we just saw her doing her job, and as a detective, incompetent is the last thing I'd call her."
"Then maybe she wants to be caught."
"Or she could be covering for someone else, but she's having doubts about it," Alex added.
Diana nodded. "We'll have to be careful. When you suspect local PD..."
"Yeah, I know," Alex said grimly. "I'd say play it cool for now, keep an eye on her, see what she does. We don't want to have to question her directly."
They passed a boy with auburn hair walking down the side of the road with his hands shoved in the pockets of his dirty jeans, kicking up the dust. He twisted around to look at them when he heard the car coming, and shuffled further over to the side. From his face, Diana saw that he was older than she'd first thought he was.
Squinting against the sunlight, he kept his eyes on them as they drove past. His gaze was sharp, but strangely vacant. As they rounded a curve and he fell out of sight, he stumbled awkwardly over something in the road.
Rebecca Austor lay on a metal gurney next to the one belonging to Jason Hankins. Both were waxy, white, like they could be covered a thin layer of frost. They had similar crescent fingernail scratches and hand-shaped strangulation bruises on their necks. Hankins's face was skewed a bit off- center from having the back of his skull crushed.
"No weapons," said the coroner in a neutral, businesslike tone, "except his own two hands. No sexual assault on either victim, no mutilation of the bodies post-mortem. They were both fully clothed when they were found."
"Were there usable fingerprints?" Diana asked.
The coroner shook his head. "Everything was smeared. That's a problem in bare-hands strangulation. I can tell you if your suspect's hands are the right size, but not much else. They're large hands, as you can see. Almost certainly a male. I'd say a tall male."
Diana and Alex shared a glance. That ruled out their primary (and so far only) suspect.
"I'd like for you to take some additional X-rays for us," Diana said to the coroner. "The head and neck area and the lower abdomen of each victim."
The coroner nodded. If he thought this was a strange request, he gave no sign of it.
Alex picked up Rebecca Austor's heavy white hand. There was black earth still jammed beneath the blue-white fingernails.
"You got something there?" Diana asked, craning her neck to see what he was looking at.
"Maybe," he murmured. He turned and stepped over to Jason Hankins's corpse, and picked up his hand, even heavier than Austor's. The crescents of black dirt were thinner under his nails, but still there.
Alex placed the hand back down on the table and looked over at the coroner sharply. "Is there any chance these people were alive when they were buried?"
The coroner shook his head. "No."
Diana sidled over. "What are you thinking?" she asked quietly.
"I'm thinking these people dug their own graves," he said. He pointed out the dirt.
"By force?" Diana asked.
He shook his head, gazing down intently at Jason Hankins's off-center face. "Maybe, but it doesn't seem likely. If he'd been holding them at gunpoint or knifepoint..."
She nodded. "Then you'd expect them to have been shot or stabbed. But why would they be digging in the dirt with their bare hands, of their own free will?"
He shook his head again, still not looking up. "I don't know..."
Diana glanced up at the coroner and started to say something, but was stopped by the look on his face - tense and grave. The man was standing awkwardly, his weight all on his back foot, watching Alex uneasily, almost fearfully. She could well imagine what he was thinking. The FBI's killer agent - cracked, fascinated by violent death, a dangerous man only allowed back into the field by a pulled string, a pulled purse-string- Her face grew warm with indignant anger.
"Thank you for your help, sir," she said, more abruptly than she'd meant to.
Alex looked up at her in surprise, having no way to know where the sudden burst of rudeness had come from.
They headed out into the corridor. "You seemed eager to leave," Alex observed, somewhat puzzled.
But she wasn't about to tell him why.
They spent the afternoon conducting tearful interviews with the Hankinses and the co-workers of Rebecca Austor (who had no family aside from seven cats and a canary). Did the two know each other? No. Did they have enemies? Of course not, everyone loved- Involved in drugs? God, no - how dare you.
Do you know of anything unusual that ever happened to them? Did they ever disappear for a few days? Complain of severe nightmares or seem to become confused and disoriented?
"Now this is police work," Diana sighed as they walked down the Hankinses' front steps and back to the car.
Alex snorted. "Don't pretend you're not loving every second of it."
She grinned briefly. "It is good to be back."
"It is, but I wouldn't mind a solid lead right about now." They reached the car, parked by the weed-ridden, tree-lined curb, and Alex leaned against the hood, taking a second to think. The Hankinses' great black dog could apparently still see them from his yard, and his rough voice echoed down the otherwise quiet block. The mountain arched above the housetops, fat and mocking. "The only thing the victims have in common," he said, "is that they lived in Skyland, and had for a long time."
Diana hummed. "I asked for X-rays to check for implantation," she said, "but it looks more like our perpetrator is an experimentation victim, or at least wants people to think he is - choosing to kill near a known abduction site."
Alex nodded. "Trying to make it look like test subjects are dangerous."
"If that's the case, then there may not be any connection to find. The victims could have been chosen simply because their deaths would elicit sympathy - a woman, a young man with his whole life ahead of him..."
"But it's not big enough yet," Alex said. "Two murders aren't going to grab anyone's attention."
"Except ours," Diana added as she got into the car.
They returned to the police station in the evening as promised, but they didn't have very much progress to share.
Alex ran his hand through his hair. "There's no reason someone would want both of our victims dead."
"Then this has got to be a psycho, right? A serial killer." Detective Warsaw almost sounded hopeful - and fearful, too, as if afraid the answer would be no.
Alex shook his head mutely, looking grim.
"No," Diana said, "I don't think so. With a true serial killer psychopathology, you see a set pattern or ritual - a set victim type or means of death - and escalating violence, not deescalating."
"But there is a pattern," said Warsaw vehemently. "It's the same spot, right there on the mountain. We've had two murders within a couple of hundred yards of each other, at around the same time of night. I want to stake out the area tonight, see if anyone turns up. If the killer is drawn to this place, he may not be able to help himself from coming. And the area's supposed to be restricted, so anyone who shows up can be arrested for trespassing on the spot."
"But the two murders took place three days apart," Diana said. "If there's a pattern, we wouldn't expect another death until Friday..."
Warsaw hesitated. "But you said it yourself, there might not be a pattern. We can't take chances."
"Well, unless we're dealing with someone who's had a complete psychotic break, no killer is going to come back to the scene when he sees there are other cars parked in the road," Alex said irritably. "And even if they would, we can't just stake out the area indefinitely..."
"I didn't say indefinitely," Warsaw snapped at him. "I just said tonight." At Alex's affronted look, her face immediately softened into surprised embarrassment. "I'm sorry," she said, "I don't know why I said that. It's-"
"Yeah, it's been a long week," Alex finished evenly, watching Warsaw's reaction carefully. "I think you're right. I think we should do it. Let's set up the stakeout, it's not like we have other leads."
Diana nodded, playing along. "When I'm on an interesting case, I can never sleep anyway. Let's do it."
They had dinner in a noisy local caf? - or rather, Diana had dinner, and Alex watched.
"You need to eat, Alex," she said.
He only shook his head. "I don't know what we're walking into here," he said, rubbing his hand over his face. The surrounding conversations probably covered what he was saying, but he'd learned to be careful through hard experience - background din couldn't always be counted on, and there was no sense in taking chances. So he paused, trying to think of the vocabulary, and then continued in his stiff Arabic. "I think that Warsaw was covering for somebody, but now she wants to get out of it. Now she wants him to be caught."
Diana paused, taking a moment to register the switch. "Without his knowing that it was her who gave us the information," she continued in her smoother dialect.
"Yes. It may be a friend or a boyfriend. And if she knows that he's a murderer, of course she would be afraid to come forward."
Diana nodded, but frowned slightly. "But she had the courage to show us where the bodies were. It's possible she kept it a secret from him, but..." She shook her head. "I think there's more to it than that."
"I guess we'll see," Alex said in English, and stole a French fry off Diana's plate.
And now they were sitting in the car a little ways off the service road, watching for - who knew what. Diana, sitting in the passenger's seat, was working her way through a plastic bag full of tangerines she'd bought earlier that day.
"You're driving me crazy with those, you know that?" Alex remarked casually. "How many of those do you think you can eat before you get sick of them?"
"I'd think you'd be used to it," Diana said, holding up her crumpled, orange- stained napkin to wipe the juice from her chin. "Marita's getting food cravings. You remember at lunch on Saturday? How many prawns she ate? And that was bad enough, but the ketchup..."
"I know," he said, rubbing the back of his neck, already stiff from sitting in the car so long, "that's why you're driving me crazy; I don't need both of you losing your minds."
"There's nothing wrong with a little food obsession. Just because you don't want to eat..." She waved the half-eaten fruit temptingly in his direction.
He smirked and shook his head. "After tonight, you're never gonna want to see another tangerine again."
"I already don't ever want to see another prawn again."
He breathed a laugh.
And they sat in companionable silence for a while, watching the black-green forest. Diana polished off the tangerine, and made the polite gesture of waiting a few minutes before starting another. It was the last one. Not needing to look at what she was doing, she dug her thumbnail in, getting the damp white interior of the peel bunched up against the tender borderline of the nail bed.
Alex tensed, listening for something. "Did you hear that," he whispered.
Diana set the food down on the dashboard and listened...but turned up her palms wordlessly. Alex opened the car door quietly and tilted his head to find the direction of the noise, like an animal searching for the sound of its prey. Thinking he'd pinned it down, he turned and looked piercingly into the tree cover. And there was something there...an animal silhouette moving delicately among the trees...deeper darkness intermittently blocking the moonlight.
Now Diana could see it too, and silently reached for her weapon. But Alex was already out of the car and moving towards those shadows...slowly, silently, a wolf-like stalk. The secret to walking without noise is to place your foot down first, and then shift your weight onto it, as every animal and assassin knows. Each step was precise, perfectly balanced, carrying him forward smoothly, tensely. Every muscle under control, nothing left to chance.
The shadow in the trees stopped, and Alex froze. Not more than ten feet away from each other, neither one breathing, each intensely aware of the other. Their heartbeats the loudest sound.
And the shadow jumped, leaping up the side of the hill - and he bolted after it, cutting across the tall grass - and they were locked in pursuit, running flat out into the woods. Alex's rational mind cuts in with the information that there's no chance he's going to be able to run down a wild animal in the woods, in the dark. But as that thought hit him, he found himself grabbing onto slender legs and falling heavily to the ground with this warm body struggling frantically beneath him.
Diana emerged into the clearing a few moments later, weapon drawn, breathless: "Alex - are you okay?"
"Yeah." His breath was coming back to him, and he was holding the boy with auburn hair pinned down in the leaf litter.
"We're federal agents," Diana said, brandishing her ID. "Identify yourself. What are you doing out here?"
The boy kicked out uselessly like a trapped deer, still struggling against Alex's weight, and a laugh tore out of him, like it was tearing him to messes on the inside as it came. "I don't know," he gasped. "I don't know, I don't know. There's nothing here."
In the flickering red lights of the sedan into which the uniforms were stuffing their suspect, Diana walked back to the car. Alex stood there leaning against the hood, self-consciously brushing some leaf litter from off his sleeve. Left sleeve. He was rattled, and she knew it.
She came up next to him. "I asked them to book him for trespassing first, so that we'll have more time to question him. So we've got an little while to wait."
"Which I'm gonna need, right?" he said in a slightly acid tone. "Pull myself together." She started to object, but he went on: "I lost track of myself completely, back there. I didn't identify myself, I just - reacted." He let out a shaky, half-laughing breath, shaking his head. "This is just not-"
"It is going to work," Diana said, placing her hand firmly on his shoulder. "I know it's not easy. But you've made it this far. This is not the hardest thing you've ever done."
He looked at her, and with the flickering red light coming from behind him, his face was unreadable, eyes black. He smiled. "Not by a long shot," he murmured.
Alex had enjoyed this, once. The play of mind against mind. Pursue. Parry. Double back. But it had been a long time since he'd played this side of the game - the hound instead of the fox, as it were. Some days, it seemed like another life ago.
It was not the same room where he'd questioned Duane Barry, but the mirror image of it, on the other side of the observation room. Another narrow white room with a cheap table and three metal chairs, lit by stark, clinical fluorescent light.
Ian Parsons Reese, age twenty, was waiting for them, sitting and drumming his fingertips against the cracked formica tabletop. His legs were too long to fit comfortably under the table, making him look every inch the gangly adolescent. His muddy red Nikes stuck out into the room, past the table legs. He watched carefully as the detective and the two agents came into the room. He seemed to take an immediate interest in Alex, sizing him up and watching him keenly, with his head tilted to one side. Like a bird.
"Did you ever get a feeling like you missed the boat?" he said.
Alex sat down carefully in one of the chairs across the table from him, meeting his gaze. He just looked steadily for a while, as if reading all of Reese's secrets in his eyes. It was a predatory look that he'd had a long time to perfect; Diana knew it well, though she sometimes wished she'd never see it again. The boy shifted uncomfortably, but didn't look away.
"What size shoes do you wear?" Alex asked finally.
"Thirteen," Reese said.
"Why did you kill Rebecca Austor?" Detective Warsaw asked icily.
Reese threw her a very brief, bored glance - not even a flicker of recognition, of relationship. "I don't know who that is."
Warsaw dropped the crime scene photos in front of him. "That would be the woman you strangled last night," she ground out, her jaw set hard. "Or are you going to claim you don't remember it?"
He didn't so much as glance at the pictures. He had set his eyes again on Alex's face. Diana noted this - pathological killers often can't resist examining pictures of their own victims.
"You don't want to look at these?" Alex said in a tone of faint, disingenuous surprise. "Mm, what about these ones..." He pushed several of the photos off the top of the stack, until he got down to the other crime scene. "What about Jason Hankins, why did you kill him?"
"You're asking as an expert on the subject, I guess," Reese said musingly. "Out of professional curiosity. The killer agent. You look taller on TV."
The fingers of Alex's hand jerked sharply into a half-fist. Like a tic. But he said nothing.
Warsaw, however, made a move as if to object, uncomfortable and impatient, but Diana stopped her with a touch on the forearm.
"Could you give us a minute?" Diana asked quietly.
Warsaw hesitated, looking at Alex. The last time she'd left him alone with a suspect in a room like this-
"I'll be here," Diana said, though she hated having to say it, and couldn't look at Alex when she did. But Warsaw did leave. She'd surely be in the observation room.
Diana sat down at the table, next to Alex. He and Reese were still keeping up their staring contest. Alex's eyes were now narrowed, and he was leaning slightly closer in, like a cat willing to wait all day for a mouse to come out of its hole. Reese was sitting further back from the table, one arm draped over the back of his chair and dangling carelessly. But Diana saw the tightness in the muscles that led up to his neck, and the careful way he had placed his feet on the floor, not allowing himself to fidget.
"How did you get them to come to the mountain?" Diana asked calmly.
"I didn't," Reese said with a coy tilt of his head.
Alex licked his lips. "Then who did?"
He smiled crookedly, and let out a low, smoky laugh. "The mountain made them come."
Diana glanced at Alex, who was holding the suspect with a very deliberately level gaze. "How is that possible?" she asked quietly.
Reese answered, but it was almost as if he hadn't heard her speak. He still hadn't taken his eyes off Alex. "The mountain...is everything. I dream about it. When I was fifteen, I dreamed about a big fat woman - big breasts, big thighs, big pregnant belly... And I started touching her..." Reese's eyes fell closed as he remembered. "...and her legs were made of dirt and muddy snow, and her hair was a forest of little trees. And I realized - she was the mountain. Between her legs it was where the river starts in the summer, Skyland River." He let out another voiceless laugh of muted, horrified delight. "That was my wet dream," he murmured. "And I'm gay."
"And that was when you first felt this connection with the mountain?" Diana asked matter-of-factly, drawing a slow spiral on her notepad as she watched him. Not bored, Alex knew - just thinking.
The smile fell off Reese's face, and he opened his eyes. Annoyed, maybe, that his story had met with such a cool reception. He nodded.
Diana tapped the tip of her pen against the notepad and drew herself up, a process of gathering that Alex recognized as meaning that she was trying to find the best way to put something. "When you were younger...did you ever have anything...unusual happen to you? Anything you couldn't explain?"
"I've never been abducted by aliens, if that's what you're getting at." His mouth twisted into a smirk. "Though I've had an anal probe or two."
Diana raised an eyebrow. Alex had to stifle a laugh at the sick absurdity of it, in this situation, in this room.
"Never had any missing time?" Diana continued gamely, figuring there was no point now in being anything but frank. "Lost hours or days you didn't remember? Injuries you couldn't explain?"
He laughed. "I don't believe in that crap. It's all the government. CIA and shit." The smug selfrighteousness of an adolescent boy who thinks he's
smarter than everybody else.
"But you believe Skyland Mountain is talking to you," Alex said dryly.
Reese looked sour again. "I only know what I feel."
Alex paused. He looked at Reese's hands, lying on the tabletop on either side of the stack of crime scene photos. Reese had black dirt jammed deep underneath his fingernails, shoved far into the bed. The tips of his fingers were red-raw.
"What do you feel?" Alex asked, his voice hoarse and dangerous.
Reese inhaled deeply through his nose. "I feel...I feel asleep."
"Dreaming?" Diana asked.
"No," he said, not looking at her. "Asleep while I'm awake. It's like there's two of me... the person I used to be, when I was fifteen, before this all started happening. I think that person still exists, but I can't get to him. He's asleep. This person, the person I am now, he's made up. It's like there's two of me...and one is sleeping inside the other. Did you ever get a feeling like that?"
Alex only looked pale and grave.
"Most people don't get feelings like that," Diana said neutrally. "Do you feel like you're numb? Does it take a lot to feel anything?"
Reese's head snapped around - he fixed her with a narrow-eyed gaze. "Don't talk to me like I'm a child," he warned. "And don't talk to me like I'm insane."
"Are you insane?" Alex asked sharply.
Reese turned slowly back to meet his eyes again. "I don't feel insane. I feel like I'm late to a party."
"And that's why you go to the mountain."
"Very good," Reese said dryly.
"What does it feel like," Alex said, "when you go to there?"
Reese paused, arms crossed over his stomach and peering up at the ceiling. He smiled painfully. "Well, you know... it's like being a faggot."
"How's that?" Alex prompted, though Reese would surely have told them either way.
"I mean, it's like before you know you're a faggot," Reese clarified. "You fuck and fuck and fuck these girls, and it's like what you want, but it's not what you actually want. Never get a really satisfying come out of a girl, can you? That's what it's like."
"Going to the mountain. That's what going to the mountain is like."
"And that's why you killed Rebecca Austor and Jason Hankins."
Reese chuckled breathily, looking at Alex again. "Boy, you think I've never seen a cop show, or what? You think I'm gonna get tired, or I'm gonna start thinking you're my friend, and I'm just gonna come out with it? I hope you don't think I'm that stupid."
"It's important to you that people don't think you're stupid," Diana echoed.
Reese pointed at her, giving Alex a what-did-Itell -you look. "See? That's police work. It's not important to me that people don't think I'm stupid," he continued patronizingly to Diana. "It's important to me that people don't think I'm a murderer, so that I can go home tonight."
"Well," Alex said sharply, and slapped his palm down on the tabletop with a bang, pushing himself to his feet. "It's pretty obvious," he continued in a tone of dead calm, "that we're dealing with a criminal mastermind here, Diana. I don't see any point in continuing to question him, do you? We're just wasting everybody's time."
Diana shrugged her jacket on, following his lead. "I completely agree. But there's one thing you've forgotten, Mr. Reese."
"Oh yeah?" he asked, looking relieved in spite of himself. "What's that?"
"You've been booked for trespassing. Nobody's paid your bail. You're not going home tonight."
"Or to your girlfriend," Alex added, jerking his head in what he thought was the direction of the mountain.
Reese's face suddenly hardened, and he leveled Alex with an even stare. He raised his arm to point dead ahead.
"It's that way," he said.
Behind the mirror in the observation room, Detective Leah Warsaw swallowed hard.
Alex stopped to stare at his reflection in the motel bathroom mirror. He looked about as bad as he felt, the harsh yellow light accentuating his exhausted pallor and the shadows beneath his eyes. He'd been sweating in these clothes all day, and now they were even filthier from tackling Ian Reese in the dirt. He turned on the tap and ran his wet hand over his face, more to bring himself back to reality than to get clean. He felt like showering, but he was too tired.
"Reese said he was fifteen when he started dreaming about the mountain," Diana was saying from her perch on the bed, one leg curled up beneath her. "That would have been 1997 - the year the rebels immolated the group of hybrids right here in Skyland. He said he hadn't had abduction experiences, but he's certainly more than capable of lying."
"I'm getting a feeling like everybody's a liar in this town," Alex said bitingly, emerging from the bathroom and toweling off his face. "But even if he was a test subject, there's nobody to call him now. That's one thing he said that is true - if he's going up that mountain, there's not gonna be anybody to meet him there. He's not going because he wants to be abducted, he's going because he wants to strangle people."
"But why are the people up there in the first place?"
"You're saying they were test subjects too."
"We don't know they weren't. We should get Agent Scully to examine them."
He glanced sharply out the window with a short hiss of dissatisfaction.
"She'll know what to look for," Diana pressed on insistently. "It won't be a problem. She's... a professional."
"But you know who's gonna come-" He'd been about to say 'come trotting along at her heels'. "They come as a package," he amended.
"Well," Diana said with an attempt at a smile, "life is like that sometimes. But listen - if we investigated near the site in Kazakhstan, we might find the same thing we're seeing here."
He sighed, but reluctantly nodded. "I'll call Marita about it, she can speak to her contacts. It's the middle of the day in Kazakhstan."
"And I'll call the coroner and have the bodies delivered to Agent Scully. We can drive back tomorrow morning. You look like you need to sleep."
He couldn't deny it.
Alex met Marita at the coffee shop kitty-corner from the Hoover Building, at a table outside. He studied the faux-marble tabletop, traced the pattern with a fingertip. Like fudge-ripple ice cream. She was visibly pregnant now, and he just wanted to look and look and look at her, but he didn't want to stare, so he looked at the tabletop.
"My contacts were understandably closed-mouthed," Marita said. "But I was able to determine that there have been similar cases near the site since 1997. People running away towards the site, somehow drawn to it. But no reports of violent deaths. I wasn't even able to determine whether the people involved were test subjects. My contacts offered to look into it, but that could take a while. But either way, you couldn't attribute the cases to general panic. The news of the colonist threat hasn't disseminated into the population in rural Kazakhstan the same way it has here."
He nodded. "Well, okay. I mean, that's not what you'd call conclusive, but it's something, and I wouldn't want to ignore it. So it helps." He hesitated, glancing over at the man reading a Tom Clancy novel at the next table. The man was absorbed, holding a cigarette and letting it smolder and drop its ashes into the glass tray on the table. "How are you?" Alex said in a lower voice.
"I'm all right. I...felt a kick." In her tone was something like excited, joyful dread.
"Oh God, that's-" Alex cleared his throat and swallowed. He reached over to place his hand on her stomach-
A sharp crash. They both jerked their heads around - it was just the man at the table next to them. He had knocked the glass ashtray off his table; it lay in tiny fragments at his feet. "Shit," the man hissed disgustedly, putting out his cigarette on the table top and leaning down as if capable of picking up the mess with his bare hands. He glanced at Alex and Marita's tense faces - hers grave, his annoyed and accusatory.
"Sorry," he said, though he did not sound like he was. "Waiter?"
Alex glanced at his watch. "Oh - I really have to go, I'm supposed to meet Diana." He pushed himself up from the table. "We had Scully re-examine the bodies..." He glanced awkwardly at his wife, as if the baby could hear, and he should moderate his language. He shook his head, laughing slightly at himself. "Well, I have to go."
Marita cocked her head with a puzzled smile. "Okay. Will I see you at home tonight?"
"I don't think so," he sighed, looking over at the stout brown Hoover Building. "Depending on what Scully finds, we're probably gonna drive back up again. I'll call you, though."
"All right," she said.
He turned to say goodbye again, and had to stop. She was squinting into the dying afternoon sun, and still had the remains of a wry smile about her mouth. Her hair was all coming loose from its bun.
He leaned down and kissed her softly. "Bye," he said.
She watched him go, and sat at the table for a few minutes while she finished her lemonade. She watched the waiter clear up the mess from the man with the Tom Clancy novel. Sweeping up ashes and tiny glimmers of broken glass on the ground.
Diana was waiting on a bench outside the exam room door. Perhaps she'd wanted them to go in together - a sort of show of solidarity. She was looking at him with unveiled curiosity as he approached. "Is everything okay?"
"Everything's...fine," he said, determined to keep his attention on the matter at hand. It was what he would have done when he was younger, he thought. "You were right - there have been similar reports coming out of Kazakhstan, from the other immolation site."
She nodded, hit her palms against her knees, and got up. "Well, that's more or less what I thought. Let's see what else we can get."
And so they went in.
Scully was standing in the middle of the room with a clipboard, heels together, well-groomed as always. All her walls up. Mulder was standing off to the side with his arms crossed, the very picture of protective indignation. A bodyguard...a soldier.
Alex muzzled his annoyance, choked it down. "As you were," he muttered with a vague wave of his hand. If possible, Mulder stiffened even more, and now Alex had to fight an urge to laugh. Diana touched his arm uneasily, but he shrugged her off. "Doesn't matter."
Scully pursed her lips, sharp cat-eyes flicking from Mulder to Alex and back again. "Agent Fowley. Agent Krycek. Let's get down to business, shall we?" she said tightly. She began posting the X-rays on the light boxes, one by one, talking as she went. "Ian Reese and Rebecca Austor each have implants in the backs of their necks, though nowhere else in their bodies. Jason Hankins's Xrays show nothing out of the ordinary, though in his case, any implants in the head area may well have been lost due to the nature of his injuries."
Scully turned, and took a little glass vial out of a plastic tray and placed it down on an empty metal gurney with a tiny clink.
"However," she continued, "none of the three show any signs of experimentation or hybridization. No scars. Ms. Austor's ovaries were in working order. It's possible that they were tagged shortly before the colonists had to pull out, and were never actually subjected to tests."
"I hate to ask," Diana began quietly, "but isn't there an elephant in the room here? How do we know the colonizers aren't really calling these people? How do we know they haven't returned?"
"But no one's been taken," Scully said. "Isn't that correct? Why would the colonists call for their test subjects and then not conduct any tests?"
"Our suspect claimed not to have had any abduction experiences," Diana said.
"Then it's political," Alex said. "Somebody's trying to make it look like test subjects are dangerous. We know our contact with the local PD is lying to us; she has some kind of agenda."
"Then what were the victims doing wandering around in the woods in the middle of the night, and how did Reese know where to look for them?" Diana asked. She turned to Mulder. "We've had some information that similar cases have been seen at the other burn site, in Kazakhstan. I think we're looking at some kind of...fallout."
"That's possible," Mulder said. "Whatever mechanism the colonists used to call the test subjects could be on an automated timer, or it could be activated remotely..."
Alex breathed a short laugh. "Come on, let's be honest, Mulder. We don't really know what's possible. You're just guessing what they're capable of, the same as everyone else."
Mulder looked at him like something found on the bottom of a shoe. "Well, right now guesses are all that's holding your case together. Unless you have some inside information you're not sharing with us."
Diana stared at Mulder, not quite able to believe he'd implied what she thought he'd just implied.
Alex's eyes narrowed. "All I have is what our suspect said, and he told me he'd never had an abduction experience-"
"They let you interrogate him?" Mulder interrupted.
Silence dropped like a heavy metal gate.
Diana tensed. Scully's eyes flitted over to Mulder, but she said nothing, and stood very still.
Alex ran his tongue over his lips. "Why wouldn't they, Mulder?" he said hoarsely.
Mulder shrugged. "I just thought they would have learned their lesson, that's all."
Diana's eyes went wide. "Fox-"
Alex interrupted her, speaking low and fast: "I think any good cop would be happy to work with somebody who's willing to do what's necessary to protect the operation, as opposed to standing on the sidelines letting somebody else do the dirty work."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Mulder shot back.
Alex let out a harsh laugh. "We were partners! I was green as hell, and I didn't know - We were partners. We were partners, you were supposed to watch my back. I don't know, I just have to wonder which of us is the good cop, because - Do you ever think about anything besides yourself? 'Cause all right, maybe it didn't faze you to think about what was gonna happen to me after I had to kill Duane Barry to cover your tracks, and okay, maybe it didn't bother you to cut the losses and leave Marita rotting in that hellhole-"
Diana put her hands up: "Alex - Alex, hold on-"
"Even though- even though Marita is the one person we have to get down on our knees and thank for saving all our sorry asses from being wiped off the face of this sorry planet in the first place - okay, okay, but what I don't get -"
Mulder tried to break in, with Scully's hands on his arm as if to hold him back: "Okay, you know what, you can just take your-"
But Alex raised his voice, not backing down, talking over Mulder's objection: "No, listen, what I don't get, what I just don't get at all, is didn't you give a shit about her?" He was pointing at Scully, who suddenly looked white as a sheet in either rage or horror or some sick combination. "It didn't bother you to let her get taken, out of your own goddamn recklessness? It's not like I'm a criminal genius, Mulder, it's not like I didn't want you to get to her in time. But no, it was all you, it was all what you wanted, and who gives a flying fuck who dies, or who I have to kill, or if I get my entire - no, not my career, my entire life jerked out from under me, and I have to become this- killer-"
Mulder was pale now too, a mirror of Scully's white face. Not rage - shock.
Diana took a tight inbreath, just wanting to put a stop to this before it went any further. "Alex-"
Alex waved her off, looking like he wanted to find somewhere to spit. He turned on his heel and stalked out into the hallway, leaving the door swinging violently behind him.
Mulder, Scully, and Diana were left standing there, staring at each other. Diana's arms suddenly felt heavy, and in the quiet, they could hear the wall clock ticking the seconds away.
Mulder spoke: "I didn't know-" And whatever it was he didn't know, he could not quite get it out, but the anger was drained from his voice; now he just sounded exhausted. And Diana understood.
"It's all right, Fox," she said.
Scully shifted uncomfortably, but said nothing.
Diana came out after him, striding down the corridor. He was sitting on a bench, leaning back with his head against the wall. She started to say something, but bit it back and said something different:
"In the future, I'll just do the talking with them. Okay?"
"Fine," he sighed. He sat up straight. "Fine," he said again, and he sounded less tense than she had heard him sound in days. He sounded...tired.
"He didn't know you felt that way, Alex," she said.
"Would it have made any difference if he had?"
"I'd like to think it would have, yes," she said quietly. "I'd like to think it will. From now on."
Alex cracked a smirk. "Well, I'm still not about to go out and have a drink with the guy."
Diana smiled crookedly. "I don't think anybody expects that. But if you just step back..." She trailed off. "There's time."
He didn't answer.
"Well, where do we go from here?" she said. "Ian Reese killed those people, but without a confession, without forensics, we just don't have the evidence to charge him. He'll get slapped with a fine for trespassing, and he'll be on his merry way."
Alex shook his head. "We have to go back up there. They can't hold him much longer. We can look at scenes, look at the evidence again. If he walks, more people die. And Detective Warsaw knows more than she's telling us. It might be time to break out the big stick."
Leah Warsaw sat in the office of the county jail with a newspaper open in her lap, but she was not reading.
She could feel each star of Cassiopeia like a hot needle point in the back of her neck.
She had gotten very good at ignoring it, since it had gotten so much fainter this past year. She hadn't needed to go to the mountain in a long time. But what she wasn't used to yet - what she'd never expected - was the sense of loss.
Every few seconds, there was a scuffle of sneakers on concrete, and a muffled thud.
Ian Reese was throwing himself against the bars of his jail cell.
Warsaw appeared in the dark corridor, her round face like a pale white moon. "Stop it," she said.
He stopped. His left cheekbone was bruised redblue, and he was holding his left arm stiffly at his side, pressing his chest against the bars. "I can't. You know I can't."
"Is there somebody out there?" Warsaw asked, stepping out of the light from the open office door, and into the darkness. She came right up close to him, and she could feel his rapid shallow breath on her face. "I mean...there's somebody out there tonight, on the mountain. And you want to go get them."
"Someone has to," he said.
"Why does it have to be you?"
He started to smile, but it turned into a wince with his banged-up face. "'Cause I'm the only one who gets it."
"I get it," she said. "They can't get what they want. Somebody has to give it to them."
"Yes," he said savagely, pressing himself even harder against the door, the fingers of his right hand going white as he clutched a bar, trembling. "They want to be taken away. Somebody has to take them. I can't take them where they want to go, but... at least I can take them away."
"It's like missing time," she said softly.
He hesitated. "What?"
"When it all goes dark," she said, "and you come back to yourself, and it's later. Minutes. Days. And the time is just...missing. I always thought that being in the missing time must be just like being dead."
He paused again. He shook his head, eyes gone vacant. "I've never...I've never had that."
"I know," she said. Like comforting a sad child. "You've never been where you want to go. I have. I just never knew it was real."
He just looked at her.
"You could take it out," she said. "If you took it out, you wouldn't feel it anymore."
His hand automatically moved to touch the back of his neck, but stopped before it got there. His gaze wavered. "I don't...I don't want to get sick."
She nodded. "Neither do I," she said. "Let's go to the mountain."
They were on the road that forked off to the mountain, under the brilliant stars. Alex's cell phone rang.
"Agent Krycek," panted the staticky voice on the other end, "are you in town? Ian Reese is gone from his cell, and Detective Warsaw isn't answering her phone-"
Alex hit the brakes.
Diana had been slumped down in her seat; she jumped to attention. "What the-?"
"They're gone," Alex said, tossing the phone into her lap and turning the car around. "They're gonna go up the mountain. Tell 'em we need backup."
And they drove.
Warsaw drove him in her messy little jeep, as close as they could get, until the car gave out, stuck and groaning in the uphill dirt. Then they walked up, and further up. It was rocky, and he stepped on her foot a couple of times. They walked until they couldn't get any closer to where they were being called. Cassiopeia gleamed bright overhead. Taunting them. Screaming for them.
"Don't cry, okay?" she said nervously, though he hadn't started yet. He hadn't been about to, either, but as soon as she said it, tears started welling up.
"She draws me out here...but it's not real. You bitch-" And his voice cracked, coming down low and rough and savage, his face twisting. "You bitch. There's nothing here!"
"It is real," Warsaw said. She placed her hand on his arm. "It was real. You're not insane."
"I'm so tired," he said brokenly.
"You have to promise you'll do it," he said, his voice growing childishly plaintive now. "I want to go, but not if you don't promise you'll take them for me. The rest of them. When they're called. When they come. You have to take them, or else they'll be waiting forever. Promise."
Her face was in shadow. "I promise," she said.
He felt a pull, and fell to the ground. He scratched half-heartedly at the dirt. His fingers were so raw already. "Please," he said.
A roost of sleeping birds scattered at the gunshot.
Flash of headlights. The growl and gravel-crunch of an approaching car. She turned, wide-eyed, stockstill like a deer before a predator.
They got out of the car with weapons drawn.
"Federal agents," the woman said. "Detective, put your weapon down now!"
"I'm a liar," Leah Warsaw said. When she opened her mouth, she tasted wet salt, and it was only then that she realized she was crying. "And I'm a coward."
She brought the gun to her temple.
At the second shot, there were no birds.
Diana walked out into the hospital corridor. Alex was sitting with his face in his hand.
"Reese was DOA," she said. "Warsaw only grazed herself. When she's lucid enough, they'll charge her. She released him intentionally. Drove him up there of her own free will."
"First degree murder," Alex said flatly, not looking up.
"Maybe," Diana said. "But she was in treatment. Paranoid schizophrenia with a second axis of dissociative fugue." A combination that spelled out test subject, clear as day. "She's awake. I heard her asking to have the implant removed. If she's still singing the same tune when she knows what she's saying, I don't see any reason why a judge would deny the request."
"She'll get sick," he said.
"What time is it?"
She looked at her watch. "It's three-thirty in the morning."
He swore. "I told Marita I'd call."
Diana put her hand on his shoulder, and squeezed. "Why don't you go home to her instead? We can't do anything more here."
He nodded, and stood up.
On the highway, she glanced in the rear view mirror. In the back seat of the car, Alex was fast asleep with his head on his shoulder, the side of his neck exposed. The dark silhouette of Skyland Mountain bulged on the horizon.
Diana shook her head, readjusted the mirror, and kept her eyes on the darkened road ahead.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Many thanks to Maidenjedi for the fast and fine beta, and of course to Deslea for organizing this terrific project, and for inviting me to come play.
Join the post-episode discussion here: http://xfvcu.deslea.com/forums/index.php?board=3 or feedback the author at email@example.com
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